This is a very personal account of the face veil and a response to a related blog post by Dr. Nadia El-Awady, and to the laws being passed to ban the face veil. Sharing the experience has been on my mind for a while, but the current debates make it necessary for the world to hear what we niqabis have to say.
The first word I want to say is that niqab is a step that I have taken and then went about my life. I didn’t mean it to define my life. But it is the people that insist on highlighting it over and over again. So what is there behind that veil?
Behind the veil – any kind of veil - is a girl, with all the thoughts, aspirations, emotions and conflicts that this implies. She loves, she hates, she falls, she gets up, and she makes mistakes, sometimes ugly thoughts cross her mind – a normal human being, that is. The same goes for the much debated face veil that has become a favorite topic for European politics and the anthem of anti-oppression champions.
So where did my journey with the niqab start?
A Spiritual Journey
My journey probably started when I started learning how to recite the Quran. Actually, before that. It started when I wanted to take off my headscarf. I talked to my brother about how I felt like I can’t express myself. Something about the veil makes you look solemn whereas at that time I had gone all the way up the ladder of metal music and liked curly hair and other associated looks. I didn’t feel like the headscarf really represented who I am.
Looking back at it now, I know boys must have been part of my thought, but still, I wanted to be known by who I am.
My brother talked me out of the idea and I continued to wear it. But then on a separate note, I set out to learn my religion. I learnt that Fajr, or dawn, prayer is actually prayed, well, at dawn and not any time you wake up. I started keeping it and learning to recite the Quran properly, increasingly keeping prayers on time and reciting a small bit of Quran everyday. That was when I was in high school. I went on taking small steps, gradually adding voluntary acts of worship, building my very intimate relationship with God and the Quran, and seeing the reflections of this in my life.
It also reflected on my outward look as more and more I would feel like I want to don more decent, looser outfit, and a larger veil rather than the small one tuck around my head. These steps came from inside me and so I felt comfortable doing them, unlike when they are dictated or incited by someone.
In college, my character and faith were taking further shape. I was becoming more open to life, more positive in many ways, and more able to make choices about what I want. I could see how that relationship with God was reflecting on my daily life. When I do something good, the world seems to work to my advantage. When I do something bad, I am ticked off to go back to the right direction.
Just like I took the many previous steps inwardly and outwardly, thoughts about the niqab were starting to tinkle in my mind. I would try to shut them off - knowing that it is very uncommon in my surroundings, and that my parents would utterly reject it – but it was not for long that this worked.
A Significant Verse and Moment
In the end, I couldn’t silence that voice inside me but started praying istikhara (a prayer you do when you are confused about a choice to make). There was a verse in the Quran that – although apparently not having anything to do with the veil – had to do with the face, and whenever I read it, thoughts of the face veil came to my mind. It was a meaning that I had assigned to that verse in my own mind. So every time I prayed istikhara, I would stumble upon this verse by any chance: turning TV channels, reciting my daily werd (quota of the Quran), just by any chance.
Eventually, on a Ramadan night in my third year of university I prayed istikhara one more time about whether God thinks it right for me to don the niqab. I did not assume that it was better. Something inside me strongly called me to wear it and I was becoming increasingly shy about my face but my mind was telling me that maybe you can do better not wearing it, even serve your religion better, and that it was against everything you were raised to or thought before. I truly wanted guidance on what was better for me as in God’s eternal knowledge.
I thought to myself that I will finish the prayer and read my usual werd, and if I meet the verse – which I was not sure then in which chapter it was – then that is a sign that God wants me to wear it. But still I thought no,no,no, I can’t think that way. I recited my Quran, and met nothing. I kept turning a few pages after to see if I meet the verse, still nothing. Then the moment I closed The Book, my mother was praying outside, reciting the exact same verse I was thinking about!!!!!
That incident was significant in many ways. First: some Entity out there knew what I was thinking and responded to it. And that Entity did not respond in the way I wanted – because I know of all these theories about how the mind can bring on certain reactions from the so called universe. He responded in a way that was according to His Will and prior Knowledge that I will pray on that specific night - because we recite the 30 parts of the Quran along the 30 days of Ramadan specifically, and so that verse was read in that particular moment of that particular day of that particular month according to some knowledge. And it had meaning in other ways too, as my Mom – after waging war on me that night – would later be the one to defend my right to choose it and support me in many ways despite disliking it (a very special Mom to this, I have to say).
Reactions to the Face Veil
Well, reactions to my face veil varied. My family was outraged when I first brought up the idea that night. They were like, you should stay at home better, you are shutting yourself up from the world and hints were made about how will a person ever propose to me without seeing me?
Three years after I wore it, in my wedding, my sister still thought I might consider taking it off. My aunt talked me into how it is not obligatory almost every time I visited her – I never said it was obligatory to start with, but that was the discussion I was always forced into. I knew they loved me, though, and that made things easier for all of us.
Four years after my wearing it now they’ve learned to accept it. Lately, a certain situation happened when I got cornered and had to show my face to a male employee. I was surprised to see my Dad and brother - who could hardly live with the idea of the face veil – defend my right to an arrangement that doesn’t violate my right to wear it. It made me so proud of them.
On the streets, people were sometimes vulgar. A sick person is a sick person, no matter what you wear. Some girls do hide behind the veil to do undesired things. But for the major part, people respected you as long as you respected yourself.
Average Egyptian women usually had some kind of a prejudice or presumption that was hard to get over whenever they saw you wore a veil. It was a combination of social presumption, and an anticipation of an underlying attack against them, especially if they were not wearing a headscarf.
Whenever I had to use the subway, I would always worry about the sensation I get the moment I get into the cart: that people perceived me as hostile assuming that I must think each one of them should wear the veil – which was not true. I would comfort myself thinking that situations always come up and people will know you are good. And situations always came up: a small gesture of help or communication always helps you get through.
The part I liked most was Westerners’ reaction to the face veil. Foreigners also had their misconceptions but the moment they heard you talk, they were open to interpret you according to what they hear. This is in contrast to Egyptians who interpreted you against a background of their own culture. Foreigners were forced to question all their beliefs as they see you talk, interact, and laugh. They see that you are not oppressed, you are educated, your Dad and brother are obviously not behind your back watching where you go or who talk to. Their preconceptions were dashed and they were bedazzled, which was usually good for a start.
The Essence of Communication
A comment I have to say here is that the experience brought me back to the essence of communication. How do you know a person? I mean, really know them? Is it the face, looks, words, or actual dealing along a period of time and maybe across different circumstances too? These are all levels of communication and only the last one is the one that leads to honest judgment in my view. Our modern cultures are increasingly becoming based on sales and marketing mentality of impressions and looks. Yet whenever I worried about people’s reactions to some decisions I made, I took the issue to its origin: in time they will know me and know why I did this. But sometimes people just don’t want to give themselves that chance to actually know the person, not judge them by their looks.
Another fact that I learned is that communication is actually greatly affected by the negative or positive energy on the person’s side. One girl once told me that her boss’s wife wore a face veil and whenever she talked to her, she felt like there was this barrier. “But I don’t feel this barrier with you”, she said. And many people told me similar things. I think the secret is that inside me, I place no barrier and I do not assume that people will not accept me. Sometimes it is us who place the barriers and then complain that people do not accept us, and it is only natural for them not to.
For another part, don’t we deal with people on e-mails and the internet, people that we have never seen their faces or known their lives? But we deal with them and talk to them and try to understand their minds. Can’t we do the same thing with a woman wearing a veil? Besides, people always can tell who I am - by my size and the type of dress - and whether I am smiling, frowning or even making a face because your eyes and your body language reflect it.
Feminist in Disguise
I have always been a feminist in some way. There is a wide range inside feminist movement but what matters is here is my a desire for men to know me by who I am, the person I am, not my looks.
At one point I believed that this was almost impossible: a man will always see you as a woman. My religious journey went on a separate path. But my niqab closed the circle in an unexpected way. When I wore it, I didn’t plan to stop communicating with people, specifically men. I meant to be who I am as I always was.
Surprisingly enough, when I dealt with men, they respected me more and gave me a chance to be seen as “the person” I am, “the mind” I am and not the look. They were forced to respect me for who I am. It was what I wanted all along, only found through a way that was opposite the normally assumed direction in our times - of revealing more rather than covering more.
I won’t say that there was not curiosity on their side in some instances, but curiosity gives way to character eventually. And I tell you this, a man may be curious about a woman with a veil, but he will not love her and she will not be unforgettable to him if he hasn’t seen her.
So as a Final Note
For all the politicians and the advocates of banning the face veil as a way of liberation, I tell you, that my face veil has liberated me more than you think. The time when I felt most oppressed in my life were the three years during which my parents refused to let me express who I am and wear it. Lately when I found myself in a situation where I was compelled to take it off, I felt like someone was ripping me of clothes, of my dignity, of something that I chose to make private. It was painful and humiliating.
As a woman, I refuse to be judged solely based on what I wear. If I were a woman who dressed like the average European woman, I would still be offended by the thought that I am judged based on my outfit. Such judgment based is limited and undermining to me in all cases. If you want to encourage that view of women, go ahead banning the veil.
Even more, you tell me that some people are not comfortable talking to a woman with a face veil. In other words, you are telling me to condition myself on people’s “perception” of what is comfortable to them and what is not. Well, I am not comfortable talking to a woman wearing too much make up or too little clothing, does that mean I will give them rules on what to wear?
This is not to say that some people are not forced to wear the face veil: Yes, some are. And they are oppressed because of ignorance rather than any other reason. So if you want to help, alleviate the poverty and ignorance - especially about religion- that bring oppression to women.
But niqabis are as varied as the rainbow colors. Some were forced to wear niqab, but most of the girls I know had to fight for it. Others take the opinion that it is obligatory, so denying them that right is a way of infringing on their religious freedom. Just like I am trying to avoid generalizing, I hope we would not be treated as a monolithic bunch.
Besides, all societies exert a pressure of some sort on girls – and boys – be it to wear make up, or dress according to certain dress codes. So why are you addressing this specific instance with such rigidity?
The security argument is also easy to get over. Provide a woman where you want security and you have our identity fully detected.
To the French MPs and their supporters: Stop these false claims. Stop your undercover racism.